Walk into any new or remodeled hospital, hotel, or office building and chances are good that the restroom will have touch-free fixtures. Automated toilets, faucets, and dispensers have become so popular that only their absence draws attention. Patrons want them because they are sanitary, janitors like them because they are easy to clean, and managers appreciate the cost savings they can provide.

Touch-free products have come a long way since their inception in the 1940s. What started as simple mechanical devices evolved into center-pull dispensers and then into electronic gizmos. Today’s touch-free products are far more technologically advanced and easier to install and maintain than their predecessors, not to mention cheaper on the managers budget.

“I notice that more and more public facilities are using touch-free devices,” says Brad Smith, director of housekeeping at the Estes Park Center/YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colo. The public restrooms at the YMCA’s conference center and nine hotels use touch-free paper towel dispensers, toilets, urinals, and sink faucets.

Users’ choice
Sleek touch-free gadgets have been known to portray an upscale image that resonates with end users. People often believe that facilities that use touchless dispensers are more modern and user friendly; installing the devices can impress customers.

“One strong benefit to using touch-free products is the perception that they are more hygienic and state-of-the-art,” says Rick McCormack, vice president of design for The Cheesecake Factory, which uses touch-free urinals and water closets in all of its nearly 100 locations.

Cross-contamination is important to many end users and is an even bigger issue in health care, which was the first market to really embrace touch-free technology. Following its inception, it was really the germ-conscious public who was largely responsible for the popularity of this technology in public venues. By reducing the surface area one must touch in a public restroom, touch-free products ultimately help prevent the spread of germs.

“The users feel touch-free is more sanitary,” says Leonard Jones, assistant director of physical plant–housekeeping at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J. The university has touch-free products in two of its 67 buildings but plans to use the products exclusively in all new structures. “The products are also easier to clean and save money, so for me it’s a win-win situation.”

Clean streak
Users’ belief that touch-free products equal cleaner restrooms is not necessarily off base. The devices can improve cleanliness by keeping toilets flushed and eliminating messy puddles of soap and water around the sink.

“There is a tendency for urinals not to get flushed, which can cause odor problems, so they are prime candidates for automatic technology,” says Steven Mack, M.Ed., director of buildings and grounds at Ohio University, which has been changing over to touch-free plumbing fixtures, sinks, toilets, and urinals for the last four years. “We reduced complaints in a variety of restrooms simply by converting appliances to touch-free systems.”

Another benefit to touch-free environments is that they may require less strenuous and frequent cleaning. Without hands touching fixtures and dispensers, they should stay cleaner longer. Plus, the products reduce waste, such as soap buildup below a manual dispenser or water pooling around faucets.

When cleaning is needed, it is important to use a cloth or flatmop and mild disinfectant to wipe down fixtures and surfaces. On a daily basis, it is important to wipe automated photo-eyes with non-corrosive chemicals, such as a non-acid bathroom cleaner. Finally, janitors should check units for clogging by taking the dispenser apart and cleaning out the interior about once a month.

“Our touch-free fixtures require a preventative maintenance program versus the daily program that is required with the regular fixtures,” Jones says.

Maintenance matters
Routine cleaning is so important because impressive-looking touch-free products are meaningless if they don’t work. It’s common knowledge that this technology has a less-than-perfect track record, with many systems failing over the years. Soap dispensers would clog quickly, towel dispensers didn’t work with inexpensive paper, toilets would flush too often, and sinks would run nonstop. Thankfully, manufacturers have heard the cry of help from users and ironed out most of these bugs.

“The devices have improved and are simple to use and reliable,” Jones says.

That’s not to say, however, that the technology is perfect. Auto flushes without a manual override button can be incredibly difficult to clean. Sensors on the products can be sensitive and difficult to control. Batteries can die without warning and power outages can render the devices inoperable.

Sensors tend to cause the most problems for end users. The infrared devices respond to stimuli, such as motion or light, to operate the touch-free system. Some sensors never need to be adjusted, but others may need to be tweaked.

Toilets that flush multiple times during one use may need a sensitivity adjustment. Auto-flush toilets have an adjustment screw that can change how far the user must be from the toilet before the sensor detects motion. Likewise, sensors for soap and towel dispensers can be fine-tuned to adjust how much is dispensed and how frequently.

“Generally the sensor technology has improved,” Mack says. “They do a better job recognizing usage and many are programmable so that frequencies can be changed and adjusted for high-traffic times.”

After sensors, batteries are the biggest maintenance issue for touch-free products. As with most electronic devices, these products include batteries that eventually die and must be changed. The batteries can last anywhere from six months to several years, depending on usage.

“The greatest downside to the touch-free items is battery life,” says McCormack.

While some touch-free systems may have an alarm to warn when batteries are weak, many don’t, so it’s important for maintenance personnel to keep a battery-replacement log. Monitoring usage and battery efficiencies will help managers stay on top of necessary replacements.

To get around this problem, manufacturers have developed new touch-free systems that can be wired into the buildings power system. These devices may not include a manual override, which could present a problem in the case of a power outage.

“We discovered that you can't flush the toilets when the power is out,” says Robert Washburn, director of facilities management at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, Edwardsville, Ill. “Fortunately, in our location, power outages are rare and usually short lived. If we were to have a prolonged outage, it could be a significant sanitary problem.”

Cost considerations
The initial cost for hands-free devices is often higher than their traditional counterparts. But facility managers are often willing to pay the price in hopes of recouping the costs through future product and energy savings.

Touch-free towel dispensers often have controlled systems that regulate usage and therefore reduce waste. Some dispensers can even go into a “suspend mode” if they are being vandalized, while others monitor traffic to help manage inventory and maintenance schedules. These high-capacity systems need to be filled less often, which also reduces labor costs.

“At first, they may cost more, but not in the end,” says Robert Anderson, facilities manager at Saint Xavier University in Chicago. “In the future, these items will cost us less to operate. I see no downsides.”

Automated toilets and sinks also can reduce more than just water usage over time. Unlike traditional toilets, which many people flush with their feet, automated toilets eliminate unnecessary roughness and related maintenance expenses.

“The touch-free flush valves reduce damage to piping caused by people kicking the flush valves to flush the toilets,” says Washburn.

The Estes Park Center/YMCA installed touch-free faucets, toilets and urinals four years ago, following a summer of severe drought. The organization hoped the devices would reduce the use of water, which they did. They were also pleased that last year they added touch-free paper towel dispensers, which have reduced paper waste. The products have created significant cost savings, in more ways than anticipated.

“I have even noted fewer maintenance problems with the touch-free units,” Smith says.

More to come
Demand remains high for touch-free technology and manufacturers are happy to respond with more products. They continue to research new areas of the bathroom to automate, while also improving the existing technology and aesthetics.

Dispensers will become more attractive, easier to use, and less expensive. There will be more high-capacity products, towel dispensers that will hold softer and larger towels, quieter units, and universal dispensers that will work with any manufacturer’s product. Hardware will also become more reliable as the technology is refined and improved.

“In the near future our customers will demand that public restrooms be as touch-free as possible,” says Mack.

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa.